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An assertion is a test on the characters following or preceding the current matching point that does not actually consume any characters. The simple assertions coded as \b, \B, \A, \G, \Z, \z, ^ and $ are described above.


More complicated assertions are coded as subpatterns. There are two kinds: those that look ahead of the current position in the subject string, and those that look behind it. An assertion subpattern is matched in the normal way, except that it does not cause the current matching position to be changed.


Assertion subpatterns are not capturing subpatterns. If such an assertion contains capturing subpatterns within it, these are counted for the purposes of numbering the capturing subpatterns in the whole pattern. However, substring capturing is carried out only for positive assertions. (Perl sometimes, but not always, does do capturing in negative assertions.)


For compatibility with Perl, assertion subpatterns may be repeated; though it makes no sense to assert the same thing several times, the side effect of capturing parentheses may occasionally be useful. In practice, there only three cases:

(1) If the quantifier is {0}, the assertion is never obeyed during matching. However, it may contain internal capturing parenthesized groups that are called from elsewhere via the subroutine mechanism.

(2) If quantifier is {0,n} where n is greater than zero, it is treated as if it were {0,1}. At run time, the rest of the pattern match is tried with and without the assertion, the order depending on the greediness of the quantifier.

(3) If the minimum repetition is greater than zero, the quantifier is ignored. The assertion is obeyed just once when encountered during matching.


Lookahead assertions


Lookahead assertions start with (?= for positive assertions and (?! for negative assertions. For example,



matches a word followed by a semicolon, but does not include the semicolon in the match, and



matches any occurrence of "foo" that is not followed by "bar". Note that the apparently similar pattern



does not find an occurrence of "bar" that is preceded by something other than "foo"; it finds any occurrence of "bar" whatsoever, because the assertion (?!foo) is always true when the next three characters are "bar". A lookbehind assertion is needed to achieve the other effect.


If you want to force a matching failure at some point in a pattern, the most convenient way to do it is with (?!) because an empty string always matches, so an assertion that requires there not to be an empty string must always fail. The backtracking control verb (*FAIL) or (*F) is a synonym for (?!).


Lookbehind assertions


Lookbehind assertions start with (?<= for positive assertions and (?<! for negative assertions. For example,




does find an occurrence of "bar" that is not preceded by "foo". The contents of a lookbehind assertion are restricted such that all the strings it matches must have a fixed length. However, if there are several top-level alternatives, they do not all have to have the same fixed length. Thus



is permitted, but




causes an error at compile time. Branches that match different length strings are permitted only at the top level of a lookbehind assertion. This is an extension compared with Perl, which requires all branches to match the same length of string. An assertion such as



is not permitted, because its single top-level branch can match two different lengths, but it is acceptable to PCRE if rewritten to use two top-level branches:




In some cases, the escape sequence \K (see above) can be used instead of a lookbehind assertion to get round the fixed-length restriction.

The implementation of lookbehind assertions is, for each alternative, to temporarily move the current position back by the fixed length and then try to match. If there are insufficient characters before the current position, the assertion fails.


In a UTF mode, PCRE does not allow the \C escape (which matches a single data unit even in a UTF mode) to appear in lookbehind assertions, because it makes it impossible to calculate the length of the lookbehind. The \X and \R escapes, which can match different numbers of data units, are also not permitted.


"Subroutine" calls (see below) such as (?2) or (?&X) are permitted in lookbehinds, as long as the subpattern matches a fixed-length string. Recursion, however, is not supported.

Possessive quantifiers can be used in conjunction with lookbehind assertions to specify efficient matching of fixed-length strings at the end of subject strings. Consider a simple pattern such as



when applied to a long string that does not match. Because matching proceeds from left to right, PCRE will look for each "a" in the subject and then see if what follows matches the rest of the pattern. If the pattern is specified as




the initial .* matches the entire string at first, but when this fails (because there is no following "a"), it backtracks to match all but the last character, then all but the last two characters, and so on. Once again the search for "a" covers the entire string, from right to left, so we are no better off. However, if the pattern is written as




there can be no backtracking for the .*+ item; it can match only the entire string. The subsequent lookbehind assertion does a single test on the last four characters. If it fails, the match fails immediately. For long strings, this approach makes a significant difference to the processing time.

Using multiple assertions


Several assertions (of any sort) may occur in succession. For example,




matches "foo" preceded by three digits that are not "999". Notice that each of the assertions is applied independently at the same point in the subject string. First there is a check that the previous three characters are all digits, and then there is a check that the same three characters are not "999". This pattern does not match "foo" preceded by six characters, the first of which are digits and the last three of which are not "999". For example, it doesn't match "123abcfoo". A pattern to do that is



This time the first assertion looks at the preceding six characters, checking that the first three are digits, and then the second assertion checks that the preceding three characters are not "999".


Assertions can be nested in any combination. For example,




matches an occurrence of "baz" that is preceded by "bar" which in turn is not preceded by "foo", while




is another pattern that matches "foo" preceded by three digits and any three characters that are not "999".




Philip Hazel

University Computing Service

Cambridge CB2 3QH, England.

Last updated: 12 November 2013

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